Floating slam has Orioles feeling sunk Gonzalez 354-foot slam decks Erickson, 9-5, as 'toughest month' ends

June 01, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

A man usually given to little reaction, Scott Erickson stood on the mound staring a hole into the sky.

In the game's first two innings, Erickson had seen the Orioles send 13 hitters to the plate. Seven reached base. Only one scored. Now in the third, he saw what he thought to be a "routine fly ball" off the bat of Texas Rangers right fielder Juan Gonzalez keep floating and floating and literally scrape the left-field wall for a grand slam. In his mind, the Orioles' chances went with it.

"When the ball was hit, everybody was yelling 'second base' because they thought it was a sacrifice fly," Orioles manager Ray Miller said. "Unfortunately the guy in the stands didn't throw it there."

Rim shot, please.

The Rangers suddenly led by four runs on a guest appearance by El Nino. They eventually won, 9-5. All Erickson could do was look to the heavens and probably yell something other than "second base."

"It was a routine fly, but that's the way it goes here. The wind's blowing out," Erickson said of the 354-foot "Camden Yards homer."

Gonzalez added a bases-empty home run in the ninth, giving him five RBIs for the game and his second consecutive multi-homer game.

And so it goes for the Orioles, who went 11-17 during a hellish May that Miller described as "the toughest month I've ever spent" in the big leagues. Down to two of their original five starting pitchers with the Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves next, the 25-30 Orioles don't stir optimism. Yesterday only further deflated a star-crossed team.

"This stuff is getting old," Miller groused.

The Orioles have lost 14 of 21 and haven't had a winning record since May 14, the day they lost ace Mike Mussina with a line drive to the face. They have as many losses now as last year's team did at the All-Star break.

"I really wish I could write a brighter story to everything, but until we get our pitching straightened out, there's going to be a lot of stress on the starters and a lot of stress on the hitters. The hitters have to score some runs, and we have to hold them early," conceded Miller, a guy who usually sees the glass half-full.

Said Erickson: "We don't have to worry about other teams until we at least get to .500. We need to get to .500 and build on that."

Given chances to batter Rangers left-hander Darren Oliver (3-5) in the first two innings, they instead scored once and twice left the bases loaded, beginning a day of frustration that ended with 14 runners left on base and a deflating split against a team it had outplayed for the first two games plus seven innings. The Orioles manufactured 19 base runners, pushed 13 into scoring position and then did next to nothing.

"The game was over after [the grand slam]," said an irritated Erickson, who allowed seven earned runs and 10 hits in seven innings. "We couldn't score early when we had the chance."

Seldom have the Orioles done less with more, which actually says a lot. The Rangers issued six walks in the first seven innings, but only one became a run. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro stranded a small nation in an ugly 0-for-5 performance. He flied out with runners at first and third in the first inning and popped to first base with the bases loaded and two out in the second.

Then came the Rangers' third. As Erickson described it: "We had our chances. We had a little bit of a defensive letdown. A bad pitch. At that point, the game was pretty much over."

The Rangers, who took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, added four after receiving extra outs in the third. After a leadoff single by third baseman Fernando Tatis, leadoff hitter Tom Goodwin slapped a grounder to third. Playing close in anticipation of a bunt, Cal Ripken wheeled and threw to second. Second baseman Jeff Reboulet, who had far to go from where he was positioned for a bunt, double-clutched and had no play after making the force. Mark McLemore then bounced a grounder past Palmeiro. A walk to Rusty Greer loaded the bases for Gonzalez, the major-league RBI leader.

"Nobody thought when he hit it it was going out. It was a bad pitch, but it shouldn't have been a home run," said Erickson (5-6). "That's the way it goes. What can you do? You can't take it back. I knew how I wanted to throw the guy. The other three at-bats I did that [all strikeouts]. The one that really mattered he hit out."

After Erickson left, Gonzalez greeted Armando Benitez with a ninth-inning homer to finish the scoring. Gonzalez has 71 RBIs, including 20 in his past 10 games.

Meanwhile, the Orioles did little with 12 hits, including four doubles. Every situation seemed to find Palmeiro, a career .331 hitter against his former team. Each time, he hit with men in scoring position and failed to advance any of nine runners, with three lofted balls and two strikeouts. A cranky sellout crowd of 47,437 booed him to the dugout his last two at-bats.

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